As a combat officer who has lived in the worlds of Defence R&D Canada, the Directorate Land Synthetic Environments and the Combat Training Centre, Major Mike Lakatos is well suited to lead a vehicle simulation technology project that the Canadian Army believes will transform the delivery of training. He’s worked at the leading edge of defence simulation systems long enough to understand where the technology is heading and how the army can harness it.

Lakatos heads up the Land Vehicle Crew Training System (LVCTS), a Directorate of Land Requirements project that will deliver five high-tech facilities to force generating bases in Edmonton, Shilo, Petawawa, Valcartier and Gagetown to house a fleet of new simulators for the upgraded Light Armoured Vehicle, the Leopard A2 tank and the yet to be determined Close Combat Vehicle.

Once completed, LVCTS will offer vehicle crews a shared synthetic environment, integrated into existing simulations and, at some point, networked across the country. Gone will be the old appended task trainers, perched on top of training vehicles to replicate driver, gunner and commander skills.

“The greatest thing for me as a troop leader was the ability to get into the field, to take my guys out there,” said Lakatos, a graduate of the University of Victoria and the Canadian Forces Staff College in Kingston. “But with simulators, we can do the training scenarios whenever we need to, before we go into the field. Individually, you can do your driver training, your gunnery training, your crew commander training. Once the system is networked, collectively we can make them into one call sign and then network them to other call signs, into what we call a troop or a platoon vehicle configuration. We will eventually work our way up to company exercises.”

Despite the multi-million dollar outlay for the five new centres and networked simulators, Lakatos believes the savings due to “cost avoidance” in the training system could be immense. A recent estimate by the U.S. Army suggests savings of about $113 million since 1993 when an Abrams Tank Driver Trainer system was introduced. Driving a typical mile in a M1A1 training tank cost the army about $155; a virtual mile in the Tank Driver Simulator cost $5.44, and the simulators in Fort Knox have now logged over one million simulated miles.

“To be able to jump into a simulator and spend hours of training time prior to going into one hour of training in the field is priceless,” Lakatos said. “To repeat scenarios, to repeat exercises, to repeat training you need until you are comfortable with it – you can’t quantify that.”

Live exercises can’t be replaced, but they are costly. Fuel, ammunition and wear and tear on vehicles – to say nothing of environmental damage – are just some of the costs that will be mitigated through greater use of simulation.

And much as pilot trainers can now recreate any airstrip in the world, the level of realism in vehicle simulators can now replicate geo-specific terrain, says LCol (Ret’d) Jim Youngs, a consultant on the project who has worked extensively with the simulation and training industry since retiring after 22 years of service. “You can recreate the environment you are going into, right down to a farm house and a tree.”

“And you can keep refining it as each rotation goes into theatre, adjusting if that tree gets knocked down,” Lakatos adds. “The ability to put into a scenario for a mission the actual environment that you’re going to be operating in, how would you create that in the real world? To be able to insert the latest lessons learned from crews that have experienced it so the new guys are getting the latest information – I can’t stress enough how important this project is to the army.”

The greatest savings, however, might be time: time traveling to training, time that might have been lost to weather or vehicle breakdown, and time away from family. It could also reduce instructor workload, freeing up more time for one-on-one instruction.

“You’re taking an 18-19 year-old, whose never driven a heavy vehicle, and you’re giving him a massive fighting vehicle in the million dollar range and he’s trying to adjust not only to regular driving conditions but also to an up armoured vehicle with a shifting centre of gravity, and he has to understand those characteristics before going into deployment. You want that person to be as skilled and as competent as possible before you put nine guys into the back plus his crew commander and his gunner. With simulation you can replicate all of that – explosives, people screaming and shouting, things moving around, trying to manoeuvre in and out of difficult locations – you’re training the guy to understand his vehicle performance characteristics to the point he is almost one with that vehicle.”

Perfect storm
Simulation technology isn’t new, of course. Numerous countries have introduced simulator facilities to help their armies provide hi-fidelity training and mission rehearsal.

What separates Canada at the moment is fortuitous timing. Many countries have had to integrate new systems with legacy structures, always problematic when dealing with software. With the Canadian army in the process of replacing all of its combat vehicle fleet, it’s a rare alignment of the planets, Lakatos admits. “We’re coming at this with a clean slate because our systems are all being replaced at this point. So we’ll have a leap forward over everybody else. We will have the latest technology with the latest versions, on a computer network that is probably economically a lot cheaper to run than one that has legacy systems.”

The LVCTS will have full replicas of all combat vehicles, including motion, sound and 360 degree out-of-hatch views. The project is also drawing heavily on the experiences of the air force and the navy, as well as lessons from allies. Everything from the configuration of the buildings to cultural changes are being examined. “How to design the buildings, how to improve training, even how to help skeptics understand the value of simulators,” Lakatos said, “we are taking their lessons learned and how to improve upon them.”

That also means understanding the Canadian Forces’ larger networked training requirements. Though the LVCTS network will initially be confined to the five facilities, it will eventually have to link between the facilities and other army, air force and navy training sites. “That is something that has to be refined over the next year and a half, because there are a lot of complexities to it,” Lakatos.

Allies and sister services aren’t the only ones paying close attention. The defence industry is also monitoring the program. Companies such as CAE, Thales Canada and Meggitt Training Systems Canada have all delivered training services to the CF. Rheinmetall Canada, which is already modernizing 42 Leopard 2A4 main battle tanks, has called LVCTS “one of the largest virtual training system projects in the world.”

The project is currently at the options and analysis phase. Lakatos hopes to have Treasury Board funding secured by later this year to then begin the definition phase in the spring, followed by a request for proposal within two and a half years. Meanwhile, there has already been considerable discussion with industry – an industry day and a second letter of interest will likely be issued this fall – to ensure understanding of capability requirements and “what we want for the concept,” he said. “It is hand and step with industry at this point.”

Several companies will be bidding to be prime, but Lakatos believes there may be an even greater payoff for the companies and communities that surround the five simulation facilities. “You’ve got the latest technology inside high tech buildings, and the rest of the world looking at what we are doing. Whoever wins the contract, there will be lots of local hiring and lots of spin off to the local tech industry. It’s an exciting project for both the army and Canadian industry.”